In 1962 John McKernan was expelled from the pre-med program at Creighton University for, in his own words, “drinking and carousing.” Thank God. Until his expulsion, he had not read or studied a single poem. From Creighton, McKernan went on to the University of Omaha where he majored variously in History, Philosophy and English. He received a Graduate Fellowship to the University of Arkansas and did further work in creative writing at Columbia University. As if making up for time lost, he has been remarkably energetic in his pursuit of the craft. In addition to teaching, editing The Little Review and translating from the works of Rimbaud, Horace, Guillevic and Rilke, he has published several hundred poems in many of the best literary magazines in the country.
Perhaps the first thing one notices about McKernan’s poetry is his passion for places: New York, Illinois, Alabama, West Virginia, Alaska and Japan are just a few of the names appearing in the following pages. That is quite an area to cover. But the poet is not straining to somehow encompass the world, nor is he making any grandiose claims to universality. He is of a specific time, of a particular place, and he knows it. Often this awareness is painful and frustrating, as evident in the poem ingenuously titled “Shucks.” Here, the poet’s personal attempt to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western Cultures ends in failure: “But always mid-west/Tornadoes slam through/My veins….” Although we can try physically to escape, or bury, our past, we cannot be other than what we are.
On the other hand, we are often not what we appear. McKernan has a pronounced affection for the whimsical—some of his titles are almost poems themselves. Many of his personae assume a voice of disarming simplicity. How does one respond to a poem that concludes: “I am/From Denver. Up in the sky. Simple. I/Would just die to talk to Susan one day.”? Well, having read the poems that precede it, the reader does not fully believe him. However, while this “simple I” is only one of the poet’s poses, it would be wrong to divide the poems into the serious and the not-so-serious. McKernan is not as accommodating as that. The light and the serious (in fashionable terms, one would call it the poet’s darker side) generally blend together, like two parts of an integrated personality. Thus the final poem included here has the most farcical title and the most morbid last lines; conversely, “Where is My Lariat?” begins despairingly and moves to an unexpectedly playful conclusion.
It would be too easy to say that McKernan’s poems are refreshing, witty, complex and original. These are characteristics one takes for granted in all poets of his caliber. But a love poem (which is of course more than a love poem) as fine as “The Only Known Road Map of the Alaskan Islands” is almost too much to expect from anyone.
Askold Melnyczuk is the founding editor of AGNI and contributes a series of essays called “Shadowboxing.” He is professor of creative writing at UMass Boston. Excerpts from his anti-memoir in progress have appeared recently in The Threepenny Review and Epiphany. The Epiphany excerpt, “Turbulence, Love,” was cited as Notable in The Best American Essays 2010. His third novel, The House of Widows (Graywolf Press), won the Editor’s Choice Award from the American Library Association as one of the outstanding books of 2008. His second novel, Ambassador of the Dead (Counterpoint, 2001) was called “exquisite, original” by The Washington Post, and his first, What Is Told (Faber and Faber), was a New York Times Notable Book for 1994.
In 1997 Melnyczuk received a Lila Wallace-Readers’ Digest Award in Fiction. Winner of the McGinnis Award in Fiction, he has also been awarded grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. He has published stories, poems, translations, and reviews in The New York Times, The Nation, The Partisan Review, Grand Street, Ploughshares, Poetry, and The Boston Globe. His poems have been included in various anthologies, including The McGraw-Hill Book of Poetry, Literature: The Evolving Canon, and Under 35: The New Generation of American Poets. He has edited three volumes in the Graywolf Take Three Poetry Series, as well as a volume of tributes to Father Daniel Berrigan and a livre d’artiste on painter Gerry Bergstein. He also coedited From Three Worlds: New Writing from Ukraine.
He previously taught at Harvard University, the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, and Boston University, where he edited AGNI until its thirtieth anniversary year in 2002. A research associate of the Ukrainian Institute at Harvard, he has served on the boards of the New England Poetry Club and PEN New England and has been a fellow of the Boston Foundation. In 2001 he received PEN American Center’s biennial Nora Magid Award for Magazine Editing as well as PEN New England’s “Friend to Writers” Award.
Melnyczuk founded AGNI in 1972 as an undergraduate at Antioch College. (updated 9/2018)
See him interviewed on New England Authors.